It started in the motel.
More specifically, it started five years ago, but at the particular moment where this story truly begins, it actually started in the motel. This was the point where there were eleven of them, each in different rooms or their concept of comfortable bunking, each unpaid for in a very criminal fashion, but without the repercussions a crime of that nature would generally entail.
In other words, there were no police.
In fact, there should have been no motel.
But there was.
It started in the motel.
The clock wasn't working—it was frozen at one minute to eleven-eleven, much to the chagrin of those legally-illegally staying within the building's walls—so the exact time wasn't known when a young man, age twenty-two with ice blonde hair, tanned skin, and shallow sky eyes, knocked on the door of an extra-crispy room 114, bottle of liquor in one hand and a deck of cards in the other.
Some time later, he would learn that the girl named Jack, who was at this time busy throwing up her previous two meals in the toilet, was going to die very soon.
In an equally unknown amount of time, he would learn that she was going to die because of the same reason he was alive.
In a notably longer amount of time, he was going to throw that bottle of Pear Brandy against a mirror and sit in what he liked to call a figurative angst-corner.
Cin knocked on the door of Jack's room, the brandy in his hand swishing around in the half-empty-half-full bottle of liquid fire. In his opposite hand—his right, specifically—he held a deck of red cards that had somehow survived the toxic explosion that quickly engulfed the world five years ago.
That was the thing about Nuclear Holocausts, he decided. They never lived up to their expectations of hellfire and unending torment. Just a poof and a flash.
Then... a lot of stuff was gone—no unnecessary splendor or effects.
Just a game of hide-and-seek that he couldn't seem to win.
He frowned as the knocking continued to the point of being monotonous and no answer was given. That wasn't Jack; she was quick with comments and answers and doors and triggers—slow when it came to making friends in their little group of eleven, maybe, but fast at everything else. In the mind of Cin—otherwise known as Vincent Tore—the lack of speed was cause for concern.
Cin fiddled with the blackened metal of the door knob, but the scorched wooden barrier stood firm and locked. That was Jack; all closed doors and distance, keeping others out and locking herself in. The one time he'd managed to get her to talk was when he brought up alcohol, and her answers were monosyllabic, limited to the point where all he'd been able to decipher was that she was a brandy kind of girl.
Despite the fact that she still wasn't old enough to drink, that is. Then again, he mused, the law wasn't really important anymore.
In 2011, curiosity about the macabre in the world reached its peak. Two college juniors at a prestigious university, left unnamed, began conducting an experiment on the properties of illegally nuclear waste and radiation poisoning when combined with other compounds, the repercussions of which would soon be felt by all.
Experiment Sixty-Four, as it was called, eventually became too much for the two amateur scientists who, in their ignorance, created an unstable chemical reaction. The nuclear waste's potency was amplified and, for lack of a better word, exploded—sending its toxins into the air and atmosphere. They soon expanded and encompassed the globe, creating what had, for many years, been named a Nuclear Holocaust.
85 percent of cities were left empty.
92 percent of Earth's population was immediately exterminated.
5 perfect took refuge in shelters.
1 percent later died from radiation poisoning.
1 percent were physically and mentally mutated, and were named Scavengers.
The remaining 1 percent were found to be immune to the extra compound in Experiment Sixty-Four, immunizing them from the toxins themselves, and were dispatched to survey the damage. Ten have been found thus far. The year is 2016.
The concern rose again and sent Cin into silence. He pressed the side of his head close to the wood just in time to hear someone cursing, accompanied by the squeak-click that indicated that same someone trying to flush a toilet. His apprehension immediately eased and another knock sounded.
Angry mutters. Footsteps. That was always a good sign—well, not always, but it definitely was in this case, he peered through the peephole and saw nothing, so he assumed she was looking back.
"Who is it?" Jack called through the door, voice still accented with her French upbringing, and Cin swore he could taste the aggravation in her voice.
"Your best friend." Another curse and he heard footsteps leading away from the door. "I have booze!" He called as loudly as he could without attracting the attention of Crash, who was bunking with Rek one room and a half over—a half, because between 114 and 116, where 115 should have been, there was a gap made of nothing but metal suspensions and ripped up plaster.
Crash, a room and a half away, was large, black, loved to drink and could mostly likely snap him in half in half of a second. That was far too many halves for Cin's taste, and he would most likely be rendered into a fourth if Rek—Crash's constant female companion, all black choppy hair, naturally tanned skin and angry dark eyes—wanted a drink too.
The door opened and one of Jack's heavily lined brown eyes peered out from the crack. The spiky, honey-blonde hair, whose shape and cut nearly resembled his own, was just barely visible, along with a lip corner and fragment of a nose. The silver chain barring his entry was as badly scorched as the rest of the motel.
Cin held up the bottle and cards, in a kind of peace offering. The door closed again and the clattering of metal could be heard before it reopened, all the way this time. Unaware that he had been holding it, Cin expelled a large breath. Access granted. It wasn't much, but it was a start.
Adjusting the oversized goggles on his head and glancing down to make sure that everything was in order with his light brown long sleeved shirt and camouflage cargo pants, he stepped inside.
The room was fairly simple—sooty and ashen at times, but a disturbing shade of citrus for the rest—with two single beds, an old sofa—partly singed—and a bathroom. There was a floral scent in the air, masking a sour aroma that made his stomach churn. Then again, he wasn't always a rose, so it wasn't his place to complain about the air. Besides, the windows were nailed shut and Jack showed no inclination to open them.
Jack sat down on one of the beds, cross-legged and he had a glimpse of worn white socks before they disappeared beneath the light gray, overly baggy cotton overalls, straps down. She never wore the straps, no matter how many times she wore the pants.
She patted the opposite end of the bed and Cin sat, but before he could ask her anything she gave one of her typical, simple yet oh-so-rare words and pointed at the deck in his hand. "Deal." Slightly dissatisfied, he pressed further.
"What game?" She shrugged. End of conversation. Sighing, he dealt each of them seven cards, deciding that Go Fish was an instant classic. It also required her to speak at least once a turn.
If asked just why he was so interested in Jack, neither Vincent Tore nor Cin could answer you. All he could really say was that she was a puzzle that he wanted to piece together—a code he needed to crack. She wasn't like the others in their little troupe—the other immunees, like him.
While the others clung close together, happy to be with a makeshift family that the radiation wouldn't kill, Jack just pulled further and further away whenever they tried to rein her in. That was his fascination.
When he finished dealing she had already recognized the game and was giving him a look of dry amusement; one of the few looks she ever gave him other than blatant disinterest. Cin silently appreciated the variety, despite the obviousness that he was being voicelessly teased.
"Any twos?" He asked, partly because he assumed they were playing to fours and partly because the quiet air was painful and needed to be filled. She shook her head and pointed at the pile of Fishing cards. A six. That made three.
"Any sixes?" The corner of Cin's lip fell down at her soft request. That was another thing about Jack; only when the troupe was in danger would she yell. Otherwise it was always the same quiet, detached what-do-you-want-let's-just-get-this-over-with-almost-monotone-but-not-quite kind of voice.
"Go to hell," he muttered and reluctantly pulled the three cards from his hand, handing them over like each card weighed ten pounds. Jack gave the closest thing to a smile he had ever seen from her. "Next?"
"Go fish." She drew, started to ask something, then decided that vocalizing it wouldn't be worth it. She instead filled her mouth with a lengthy swig of the brandy, not even bothering to hunt for a glass. The other lip of Cin's mouth fell down. "If you backwash, Jack, I'm shooting you." She set the bottle back down on a night table and wiped her mouth with her hand.
"It's unsanitary? Bad for the drink? Just rude?"
Jack shrugged, tan shoulders lifting beneath the stark white fabric of her undershirt. "Try finding someone to complain to."
"I could talk to Anzan," Cin threatened, not really meaning it. Jack's only response was to give him a strongly disbelieving look. The look said it all. He sighed. "Good point."
"We going to play?" Asked Jack, walking the fine line of entertained by his personality and aggravated by his presence.
By this point the bottle was near empty and the two were slumped out together, Jack against the headboard and Cin dangerously close to the floor. He threw the cards in his hands in the air and watched as they fluttered to the ground; a new kind of snow. Cin shuddered.
Snow. They had all gone through snow awhile ago, when they had traversed the Atlantic over to America. Cin had read novels about the possibility of a Nuclear Holocaust ages ago—back when it was still a theory science fiction novels loved to twist and exploit beyond comprehension. He had read about the theories of bizarre weather patterns that came bundled with it.
Rain in the desert, droughts in New Orleans, that sort of thing.
This was after they had picked up Jack, wandering what was once the streets of the Chans Elysee in France, where she had been born and raised as Jacqueline Moreau—the little daughter of a well-to-do family. At first they had thought she was a Scavenger, with her wild, too long hair and bedraggled clothes.
Cin could remember how Anzan had attached his scope and noticed how his shoulders relaxed, the way they did when he had a target in his cross-hairs and was about to fire. Anzan's thing was sniping, just as Cin's was hacking—otherwise, useless as he was often called—and he was fine with letting the bullet fly. Cin could also remember how the lines between Anzan and the rifle blurred together, the two of them forming like two halves. Meshing to create one whole being.
Instead of looking away in respect, a force not much different than morbid fascination propelled him to lift up the binoculars that often dangled around his neck. It wouldn't have been the first time he had seen a Scavenger die, not with Anzan's deadly accuracy. It wouldn't have been the first time he watched as the skull slowly collapsed in on itself, turning to nothing as the bullet breached the outer shell. It wouldn't have been the first time he joined the others as they continued their stealthy stroll down the once-famous streets, as if nothing had happened.
It would be the first time he had ordered Anzan to put down his weapon. It was also the first time the others looked at him with something new from them but something he often got from his sister; a look of true appreciation. Just because he had done something they hadn't. Recognized Jack as a human and taken her in to the group.
Cin forced his mind back on track, avoiding reflecting on the French girl with wounded eyes that would soon turn glassy and cold or any icy conditions of times past.
"Where are we?" He asked, unsure of the state. Raised in London, America's geography was not a large part of his curriculum. There was also a large chance that Jack knew even less than he did, which he was well aware of due to the stereotype of the French considering Americans as nothing other than tasteless pigs.
"A motel." Jack answered, face clearly reading that this was, by far, one of the stupidest questions he could have voiced.
"Asshole. The state." She let her head fall back against the headboard with a hollow thunk.
"New York? Minnesota? Louisiana? Makes no difference, nothing changes anywhere." This was, quite possibly, the longest sentence Cin had ever heard Jack utter in the entirety of their time together. A cold drop of water landed on his face, as if trying to rouse him from the impossibility of the situation. When another came, he looked up.
"There's a hole in the roof." Jack squinted up at the green sky, still pulsating and burning with a ferocious intensity, just as it had five years ago.
"And?" Another drop.
"I think it's raining. Not very good when you're in a ground level cheap-ass motel riddled with holes in the desert, is it?" There was a moment of pause, and Cin relished it, knowing with some deep, sixth sense that it was, quite literally, The Calm Before the Storm.
Curses poured out of Jack's mouth at a frequency much faster and far more alarming than the dripping drops. Some were French, some were English, and some may as well have been Swahili to his ears. Jack also liked to swear, but when she was mad it was less like a crude act and more like an art form. The words and phrases just streamed out liked cold water from a pitcher. If you left her alone, she could continue on for hours like that.
Cin smiled to himself, ready to watch the show. Then Jack's face slowly drained from its usual tan complexion, becoming a startling white tinted with a hint of green. Before he could utter a single syllable, she raced off to the bathroom. Moments later, sounds of retching reached his ears.
"Jack?" There was no response. "Jack?" Swishing sounds. He rose from the bed, waiting. Nothing happened. "Jack, answer me or I'm coming in there." When there was still no sounds, he followed the five second rule, made a silent prayer that she wasn't loading a .45 caliber, and followed her into the bathroom.
She stood in front of the sink, one of their precious water bottles in one hand and the other grasping the sink edge so tightly her fingers went bone white. Her mouth was semi-full, that much he could tell by the way she kept swishing the water inside back and forth, like she was using some breath freshening product instead of one of the few, untainted beverages they could find. Her face was set in a state of stony focus, eyes boring holes into themselves several times over through the cruelly cracked mirror.
"Jack?" He tried a final time, words no longer sluggish and slurred but sharp and concerned. She spat into the sink and he saw a flash of red and Blood holy shit she's spitting out blood... "Are you sick?"
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, expression twitching towards morbid amusement. That was bad. Jack was never amused—ever. It was as sure a sign of the apocalypse as the the goddamn nuclear bomb that had gone off in the world's backyard.
"No, imbecile, I'm dying."
Cin waited for the punchline to accompany the punch he felt in his figurative gut and erase it. None came, just that disturbing grin set on her pale pink lips. The compartmentalizing half of his brain wondered if she glossed them or if they naturally looked like that. The other half of his brain stopped dead.
"How?" His lips found a life of their own, managing to voice the most obvious of questions with the most idiotic of voices. That other half of his brain flinched when his voice cracked. Jack scoffed.
"Toxin poisoning. Merdique reason, huh?"
"I thought you were immune." She shrugged.
"Not completely, I'm afraid. I never could follow through with anything." Jack screwed the cap back on the bottle of water, setting it on the sink. "I'd appreciate you not using that big mouth of yours to tell the others."
Feeling returned to Cin's head and fingers. Bad feeling. "Why tell me?"
Another shrug. She turned around to face him, leaning back on the sink, her very best poker face neatly in place despite the sweat on her brow and the sheen of water on the back of her hand. There it was again; the aching need to complete a puzzle.
"I felt like it."
Well, that was simple enough. It explained quite a bit too, though it wasn't exactly what he had wanted to know—was it? Cin had wanted to know something, anything, about the dollar-store mystery novel that was Jack, and now he was handed a crucial piece of the story (rising action or conclusion? He could hear the nasal voice of his literature teacher from back at school in his head) practically on a silver platter.
Vincent Tore decided he had been granted knowledge of the great mystery that was Jacqueline Moreau.
Cin decided he did not like the answer he had been given.